Man is...nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.
- Jean-Paul Sartre
Descartes once quipped that there is nothing so unbelievable that it has not been said by some philosopher.
Determinism would appear to ordinary folk to be just such an idea - at least, insofar as it conflicts with free will. Most people assume themselves to make free choices in their daily life - to be told otherwise would appear to them pretty ridiculous.
Yet, even though we assume or "know" we're free, the philosophical problem of freedom has troubled mankind for millennia. Are we fated, or free? Or both?
Fear not, armchair philosophers - to start exploring this philosophical problem, we don't have to venture much further than Netflix.
There is an extensive list of films online that deal with the problem of free will, such as Gattaca, A Clockwork Orange, etc. However, for the sake of brevity, we'll constrain our tour to just a few films.
First, a conversation from the the 2001 cult thriller-horror-sci-fi Donnie Darko, in which the troubled young protagonist questions his teacher, Monnitoff:
|Donnie Darko gets all|
moody and existential
Monnitoff: I’m not following you.
Donnie: Every living thing follows along a set path. And if you could see your path or channel, then you could see into the future, right? Like… that’s a form of time travel.
Monnitoff: Well, you’re contradicting yourself Donnie. If we were able to see out destines manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a choice to betray our chosen destinies.
This conversation illustrates the problem of free will through the traditional theistic conception of the world (we'll call this problem "problem A"). If God is eternal, and knows everything that you're going to do in advance of your doing it, doesn't that mean that you're not free to do it? That you have to do it because God already knows you will?
In addressing problem A in the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo essentially answered yes - a view that marginalized free will, and found its fulfillment in the notorious Calvinist doctrine of predestination centuries later. However, many theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, have since fought to reconcile free will and an all-knowing God. (We'll come back to that).
With the advent of Newtonian physics, the problem of free will was compounded, whether or not God is in the picture at all (we'll call this problem "problem B"). The world as we know it operates according to fundamental physical laws of motion, mechanics, and chemistry. We, too, are part of the physical, chemical universe. So if a "choice" is just brain activity, and the brain is just physical, and the physical world is determined by laws - isn't a choice determined, and not free? Aren't we all just as locked into our choices as Newton's apple is locked into falling?
Both problems A and B are summarized in a wonderful scene from Richard Linklater's animated head-trip Waking Life:
If our actions are just one more link in a causal chain of motion and chemistry, there doesn't appear to be much room for free choice. Or, as stated in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: "Sometimes we're on a collision course, and we just don't know it. Whether it's by accident or by design, there's not a thing we can do about it."
This scene dramatizes the idea that everything, including our choices, are locked into an unfolding, predetermined chain of events. If this is the case - that we're all just on our own collision course set up by initial conditions of the big bang - there are huge implications for personal responsibility.
For example, if problem B means that everything I do is determined entirely by my biology and chemistry, how can I be held responsible for lying, stealing, or hurting others? How can we say a heinous mass murderer like Hitler is guilty of anything if he didn't "choose" anything at all?
This idea is explored, in part, by the film Minority Report, a story about "pre-crime." In the film, oracles called "pre-cogs" are able to see whatever crime a person is on a "collision course" to commit.
(Jump to 2:05 - 3:05)
In the world of Minority Report, people are, like Oedipus Rex, cemented into their criminal fate - yet, the pre-crime fighters intervene and lock them up anyway. Although there is an apparent lack of free will, society still has to function by punishing criminals.
This sci-fi scenario mirrors the ethics of atheist Sam Harris. Harris has posited that the notion of free will has been "torpedoed" by modern science and physics; that our neurons make our decisions for us before we're even conscious of making a choice at all; that choice is, at root, an illusion. Still, he argues that we "don't need" free will to have a conception of moral truths. We should still lock up those who do evil, Harris argues - even though they are not the source of their own choices.
Of course, most people can't and won't take such a stance of predestination and hard determinism - either from the theism of John Calvin, or the atheism of Sam Harris. It seems that we all, to some degree, are free; even when we're sitting and talking with other people about how free will is an illusion, we behave like we're quite certain that free will is real.
But how can it be real, given what we've learned from these films?
First, there have been good (but insufficient) attempts at solving problem B (the Newtonian problem). Some have argued that quantum physics ends the free will debate by introducing the idea of "the wild card" with the uncertainty principle. But, as noted in Waking Life, quantum physics seems to be insufficient, and compounds the problem even further by introducing randomness into our choices. Sure, quantum physics puts determinism into question - but not exactly in a way that respects free choice.
...er, I mean, Daniel Dennett
Perhaps the best solution to problem B comes from the Judeo-Christian world view. For Christians, human beings are not locked into a Newtonian or quantum universe - we are not locked into the universe at all. Whatever the universe is and does, we transcend it. We are both material and immaterial creatures, both body and soul - and though we have bodily extension, and are undoubtedly physical beings, our immaterial "form," our "soul," the part of us that chooses, is supernatural - it isn't bound by a chain of causality. The "wild card" in a physical universe is not randomness, but soul.
Yet, for the theist, problem A - the problem of free will with regard to God's "fore-knowledge" - remains. How is this problem solved?
Augustine did have a strict view of God's grace that seemed to box out free will. However, other early Christian thinkers, knowing how essential free will is to the Christian worldview, dove deeper into the riddle.
No. As one blogger puts it: "secondary causes [human free will] act concomitantly with the first cause [God's will]." Or, as stated in one reader's guide to the Catechism: "there is a kind of interplay, or synergy, between human freedom and divine grace."
Regarding God's "fore-knowledge," Peter Kreeft notes that God is not "pre or post anything." He doesn't "foresee" our actions - rather, he is "present to everything." Thus, by remembering that God is outside of time, his knowledge ceases to conflict with our free choice - the two are in interplay in the present moment.
In the end, problem A and problem B are entirely different - because, in the former, we are dealing with two wills in cooperation; in the latter, we are dealing with a large physical gear in direct conflict with free choice.
For a world that is increasingly convinced that there is no God and no soul, that relies instead on the findings of science to reveal all of reality, Daniel Dennett may have provided us with the best answer to problem A that we have.
The question is: is it good enough? Can we really say with confidence that we're free, accountable agents?